Sensational Summer Stories

My vacation reads weren’t serious, but they were seriously good.


Summer is my time to ignore new books about the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, and other heady analyses of justice, law, and history in favor of purely entertaining reads. This year, during several weeks visiting kids and grandkids while hobbled by aging body parts which kept me from more dexterous activities, I read only popular fiction, ranging from good to “eh” to just plain fun — to one knockout.

They included one (it shall not be named) I couldn’t finish and tossed; a novel I liked and reviewed; another I enjoyed modestly but won’t review because I don’t have anything interesting to say about this final book by a great author; the new novel by Daniel Silva, whose spy thrillers always engage me; and a 2018 bestseller one of my granddaughters had that I picked up and was entranced by.

This last one, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, has been on the bestseller list for 140 weeks and sold 10 million copies! How does a book — a debut novel that’s neither cheap nor exploitive — reach so many readers? Where the Crawdads Sing was never on my summer reading list but turned out to be my season’s good surprise. I can’t wait for the Fox movie.

Owens is a zoologist and the co-author of 3 nonfiction books. She lived in the wilds of Africa for 23 years, documenting her observations of the lives of elephants, hyenas, and lions. Kya Clark, the central character in Where the Crawdads Sing, was abandoned by her family at 10 and left to survive alone in the marshland of North Carolina. She does so heroically.

Unschooled, Kya is shunned by townspeople, eventually exploited, and long adored by an idealistic young man. She evolves into a pantheistic author of books about the creatures who populate her lonely world — fish, shells, and feathers. She lives off the marshes, gardening and selling mussels and smoked fish to pay for gas for her small boat.

In commenting on the novel, Owens says, “I love the freedom of writing fiction. Of letting my imagination go as far as it would take me. You can always pull back, take a more conservative course. But why not soar for a while just to see what happens? A character can look, say, feel whatever works best for the tale. You can never do that with nonfiction.”

She continues, “To me writing fiction is like riding a horse through the gate and into the mountains. You take off and are never quite sure where you will end up.” Where the Crawdads Sing provides a very special ride.

Kya reminded me of Tara Westover in Educated, Westover’s memoir of escape that also became a long-running bestseller; it was read by 6 million people, on the bestseller list for 132 weeks, and sold in 45 languages.

It, too, is about a lonely young girl in an isolated family (in this case, of evangelicals). She eventually leaves at 17 to become educated and, later, an author who writes about her harsh upbringing in the mountains of Idaho. Members of an eccentric clan like hers rarely end up at Harvard or Cambridge, but she does.

Westover’s publisher describes Educated as an “account of the struggle for self-invention,” much as the heroine’s struggle to reinvent herself after being abandoned in Where the Crawdads Sing. Both the fictional Kya and the real-life Westover were alienated from the world and had to learn to survive. But while Kya forever remained the Marsh Girl, Westover needed to escape her parochial environment to thrive.

That two books about unique women — with lives dramatically unlike those of readers — could touch so many people is a tribute to the worldwide influence of literature. That they were bestsellers says something good about modern readers, too.

July and August also brought me something old, the late John le Carré’s final novel, and something new, Stacey Abrams’ While Justice Sleeps, the latter of which will likely lead to a sequel featuring its adventurous heroine. Having reviewed Abrams’ book, I won’t again here, except to say that the author, a notable Georgia politician and Yale Law School graduate, should have a second career writing about the legal system. Her plot is complicated; her prose is smooth and fast-paced.

In a nod to the recent Olympics, a Silver Medal goes to Daniel Silva’s The Cellist. His latest novel about the adventures of Gabriel Allon and his colleagues in Israel’s super-security wing was the perfect summer book. Never as profoundly edifying or insightful as Owens’ or Westover’s books, Silva’s stories nonetheless include information about intelligence work, Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, the Munich Olympics, stolen art in WWII, and other worldly topics.

Robert Ludlum-like, Silva’s books range across Europe and Russia and include small details — from the names of streets and train stations to restaurants and hotels — that transport readers to exotic places. They won’t inspire note-scribbling in the margins, but they’re ideal vacation reads, anyway.

Now, back to the more serious subjects I’m supposed to know something about…

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney, author, and literary agent. His newest book, written as R.L. Sommer, is Courting Justice.

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